Source: Reconstruction Historiography: A Source of Teaching Ideas, Robert P. Green, Jr., The Social Studies, July/August 1991, pp. 153-157. Reprinted with permission of The Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation. Published by Heldref Publications, 1319 18th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036-1802. Copyright 1991. Subscriptions: 1-800-365-9753.

Reconstruction Historiography: A Source of Teaching Ideas

Robert P. Green, Jr.*

The Social Studies, July/August 1991, pp 153-157

A frequent complaint of those familiar with the teaching of history in high schools is that the subject is too often taught as content and not often enough as process. The teaching of history as content seems to be abetted by the popular notion that "history" is a body of information ("facts," one supposes) recorded in the past and brought into the present—perhaps, as historian Jim Davidson (1984) has humorously suggested in talks with teachers, by a time-transcendent messenger—so that the historian can write it down. This view of history ignores the process by which history, the narrative that we read, is created. It fails to recognize the process that takes place between the historian and that part of the past that remains—the documents, relics, and other sources of information that the historian must interpret. That process is reflected in the historiography of a particular topic or period of history, and familiarity with that historiography provides great opportunity for the teacher to have his or her students "do" history. Knowledge of the historiography of a period allows teachers to generate classroom lessons in both inductive reasoning and critical thinking.

Stated very simply, the process of history is the same process by which most knowledge is created in the modern world, the process of inductive reasoning. This means that historians make observations (of political documents, letters, census data, and so on) and draw generalizations from those observations. Those generalizations, in turn, form the basis for the narrative that the historian creates, the historian's interpretation. A historian of the Reconstruction, for example, might study (observe, in our inductive process) legal records indicating that certain officials in the Radical governments were charged with corruption, government figures indicating that state debts mounted rapidly during the period, a variety of press attacks on the composition and actions of the Radical regimes, and accounts of the activities of organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. Based on those observations, the historian might infer that the radical regimes were corrupt, irresponsible, and unpopular with Southerners. The generalization inferred would ultimately appear in the narrative, perhaps as a topic sentence in a paragraph devoted to the shortcomings of the Radical governments, supported by "detail" sentences composed of at least some of the evidence that led the historian to the initial generalization. Historian J. G. Randall, for example, wrote the following passage.

Supported by the Grant administration and fortified by military power, the Radical Republican state machines plunged the Southern commonwealths into an abyss of misgovernment. A congressional committee reported that one of the leading carpetbag governors made over $100,000 during his first year though his salary was $8,000, while one of his appointees received fees exceeding $60,000 a year. Another carpetbag governor was charged with stealing and selling the food of the freedmen's bureau intended for the relief of helpless and ragged ex-slaves. One of his associates was accused of falsely arresting Democratic members of the Florida state legislature in order to produce a carpetbag majority . . . (Randall 1952, p.13)

Randall's topic sentence is a generalization, supported by the evidence presented in the detail sentences that follow.

In this manner, historical interpretations are produced through inductive reasoning. Since at least the time of Francis Bacon, inductive reasoning has been the basis for knowledge throughout the modern world. Of course, there are some major differences in the kinds of generalizations historians infer from their data and natural scientists infer from theirs. Scientists observe data under controlled conditions and provide generalizations that can be used to predict. The data historians observe are the very limited remains from the past, the quantity and quality of which, and over which, the historian has no control. Thus, when new data appear to historians (as provided, for example, by those using statistical analyses of large quantities of census material), historical generalizations change. Such generalizations would be risky indeed if used as a basis for prediction. Furthermore, the perspective of the historian plays an important role in the generalizations he or she creates. As many historians have argued, individuals write history with reference to the conditions uppermost in their own times; consequently, history is inevitably colored by the purposes and conceptions of the writers.

It is, however, these two limitations of historical process—limitations in terms of historical data and limitations created by perspective—that, in fact, do provide so much opportunity for effective classroom lessons. Knowledge of the historiography of a period provides the teacher with insights into these two areas: He or she is familiar with the data various historians have used to develop their interpretations as well as the points of conflict among the various interpretations themselves. Armed with those insights, the teacher can create lessons requiring the students to "do" history: Presented with historical data, students can make observations and infer generalizations. Such generalizations can be used to enrich or challenge the generalizations presented in their textbooks or other sources. Presented with conflicting historical interpretations, students can critically analyze and evaluate the passages they read, attempting to determine for themselves which interpretation better reflects the facts.

The historiography of Reconstruction suggests at least one area of contrast that readily lends itself to short lessons in the process of history. The traditional "Dunning school" of Reconstruction historians (historians writing in the earlier part of this century), emphasizing what they felt were the base and immoral motives of its Radical architects, described the period as unfortunate in every way. Unscrupulous and corrupt carpetbaggers and scalawags, promoted by ruthless Radicals in Congress bent on revenge (Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner, for example), were unleashed on the South, where they exploited the hapless freedmen, generally wreaked havoc, and undermined both the Southern economy and racial relations for generations. "Never have American public men in responsible positions, directing the destiny of the Nation, been so brutal, hypocritical, and corrupt. . . . The Southern people literally were put to the torture," wrote historian Claude G. Bowers (Grob and Billias 1972, p. 482). "Saddled with an irresponsible officialdom, the South was . . . plunged into debauchery, corruption, and private plundering unbelievable . . . " argued E. Merton Coulter (Grob and Billias 1972, p. 483).

A major assumption of this school of thought was that Southerners had recognized their defeat at the hands of the Union and, during the period prior to Radical Reconstruction, 1865-1867, were willing to accommodate themselves to a reasonable plan for Reconstruction (read Lincoln or Johnson plan). "The South accepted the results of the war—the doom of slavery and the doctrine of secession—as inevitable," wrote Albert B. Moore (1972, p. 500), "and its leaders sought to restore their respective states as speedily as possible to their normal position in the Union. But despite its acceptance in good faith of the declared aims of the North, the South was forced through the gauntlet of two plans of Reconstruction." More contemporary historians, focusing on the plight of the freedmen after the war, challenge the Dunning view. One major point of contention (there are many) is over the question of accommodation. Pointing to this two-year period when ex-Confederates essentially ran their own Reconstruction, more contemporary historians find little evidence of Southern white willingness to accommodate to any new role for the freedmen. "Virtually from the moment the Civil War ended, the search began for legal means of subordinating a volatile black population that regarded economic independence as a corollary of freedom and the old labor discipline as a badge of slavery," argued Eric Foner (1988, p. 198). Historians such as Foner point to the passage of Black Codes, the creation of organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, and the burning of black schools as evidence that the white South was indeed not ready to accommodate. This evidence, in turn, places military reconstruction under the Radicals in a less sinister light (see also Franklin 1961; Stampp 1965).

A simple lesson in historical processing might be derived from the above historiographical information. Teachers should present students with the Moore quotation above and then have them read the following quotations from the period and infer their own generalizations about white attitudes toward the freedmen. They should focus on the question: Were Southern whites in the period 1865-1866 willing to accommodate themselves to a new role for the freedmen in Southern society?

. . . there has got to be a constant pressure brought to bear upon the former slaveholders to make them deal fairly with the negroes. . . . They were very well as slaves, but in any other relation they hate them, and will place every possible obstacle in the way of their elevation. —Captain D. W. Whittle, June 8, 1865

There is nothing the matter down this way but injustice to the negro . . . It is lamentable and astonishing with what tenacity the unsubjugated cling to the old barbarism. —Clinton B. Fisk, September 2, 1865

[A Freedman's Bureau agent reported] that he called upon the sheriff of Henry County and asked him to arrest certain parties charged with committing outrages on freed people. The sheriff replied that "it would be unpopular to punish white men for anything done to a negro—it might be unsafe—that he was not going to obey the orders of any damned Yankee—and that the rebellion was not over yet in Henry County." —David Tillson, October 16, 1866

. . . even under the most favorable circumstances that can be anticipated under the present system of laws the freed people will fail to receive from the civil authorities that protection to which they are entitled both by right and by law, and without which they cannot but gradually revert back to a condition differing little from their former slavery—save in name. —Robert K. Scott, December 18, 1866

These quotations are excerpted from John A. Carpenter's essay, "Atrocities in the Reconstruction Period," which originally appeared in the Journal of Negro History. Essays such as Carpenter's can be found in anthologies of historical interpretations, volumes that are virtual gold mines for the high school teacher. This essay, for example, appeared in Charles Crowe's anthology, The Age of Civil War and Reconstruction (1966). Quotations such as these are pieces of evidence that the historians use to support their generalizations. Similarly, teachers can excerpt such brief quotations and have the students create their own generalizations.

The generalization inferred by students from the above data would be quite different from that made by Moore. This brief exercise in historical process brings the students to another aspect of historical inquiry; that is, that historians' generalizations (in this case, the students' and Moore's) often conflict. How might these conflicts be resolved? One way is to explore the historical data further. In this case, the brief exercise above might be supplemented with the following, more detailed exercise. First, the teacher might ask students to name aspects of accommodation that one might have expected in the South. Students might suggest the franchise for freedmen (at least those who were educated), support for schooling to enable the slaves to participate one day in the political system, and/or minimal protection of their civil rights. Students might then consider the following historical data:

If you could extend the elective franchise to all persons of color who can read the Constitution in English and write their names, and to all persons of color who own real estate valued at not less than two hundred and fifty dollars, and pay taxes thereon, you would completely disarm the adversary [Radicals in Congress], and set an example the other states will follow. —President Andrew Johnson to Gov. William L. Sharkey of Mississippi, August 1865 (Franklin 1961, p. 42)

We hold this to be a government of White People, made and to be perpetuated for the exclusive political benefit of the White Race, and . . . that the people of African descent cannot be considered as citizens of the United States. —Louisiana State Democratic Convention (Stampp 1965, p. 78)

The sole aim [of the new public school system] should be to educate every white child in the Commonwealth. —Charleston Daily Courier, July 1865 (Franklin 1961, p. 46)

[I am] not in favor of positively imposing upon any legislature the unqualified and imperative duty of educating any but the superior race of man—the White race. —Member, Louisiana Legislature (Franklin 1961, p. 46)

Hundreds of times I have heard the old assertion repeated, that "learning will spoil the nigger for work," and that "negro education will be the ruin of the South." —Carl Schurz (Stampp 1965, p. 78)

We had no idea that we should see them return home alive in the evening. Big white boys and half-grown men used to pelt them with stones and run them down with open knives, both to and from school. Sometimes they came home bruised, stabbed, beaten half to death, and sometimes quite dead. My own son himself was often thus beaten. He has on his forehead today a scar over his right eye which sadly tells the story of his trying experience in those days in his effort to get an education. I was wounded in the war, trying to get my freedom, and he over the eye, trying to get an education. —Douglass Wilson, former black soldier (Litwack 1979, p. 279)

[A]ll freedmen, free negroes, and mulattoes may sue and be sued . . . and may acquire personal property . . . [and] in addition to the cases in which [they] are now by law competent witnesses . . . competent in civil cases. . . . They shall also be competent witnesses in all criminal prosecutions where the crime charged is alleged to have been committed by a white person upon or against the person or property of a freedman. . . .

[E]very civil officer shall, and every person may arrest and carry back to his or her legal employer any freedman, free negro, or mulatto who shall have quit the service of his or her employer before the expiration of his or her term of service without good cause. . . . [S]aid arrested party, after being so returned, may appeal to a justice of the peace . . . who . . . on notice to the alleged employer, shall try summarily whether said appellant is legally employed by the alleged employer, and has good cause to quit. . . . [E]ither party shall have the right to appeal to the county court . . . and the decision of the county court shall be final. . . .

[A]ll freedmen, free negroes and mulattoes in this State, over the age of eighteen years, found on the second Monday in January, 1866, or thereafter, with no lawful employment or business, or found unlawfully assembling themselves together . . . and all white persons so assembling themselves with freedmen . . . shall be deemed vagrants. . . .

[N]o freedman, free negro or mulatto, not in the military service of the United States government, and not licensed so to do by the board of police of his or her county, shall keep or carry fire-arms of any kind, or any ammunition, dirk or bowie knife. . .

[I]f any freedman, free negro, or mulatto, convicted of any of the misdemeanors provided against in this act, shall fail or refuse for the space of five days, after conviction, to pay the fine and costs imposed, such person shall be hired out by the sheriff or other officer, at public outcry, to any white person who will pay said fine and all costs, and take said convict for the shortest time . . . —Mississippi Black Codes, 1865 (Graebner and Richards 1982, pp. 404-408)

Evidence abounds that many white Southerners were quite unwilling to accommodate themselves to a new role for the freedmen. How could Moore have ignored this evidence? Such questions force students to consider the role of perspective in historical writing. Might perspective bias what a historian writes? A lesson in critical analysis for bias can be designed around the longer excerpt from Moore, printed below. In this excerpt, Moore is discussing Radical Reconstruction. The teacher, after describing bias in terms of indicators, such as the use of emotionally charged or loaded words, disparaging attributions, slanted data, over-generalizations, and/or rhetorical questions, might have students search the excerpt for such indicators (Beyer 1985). Furthermore, the teacher might ask the students if, in the presence of some of these indicators, Moore's underlying assumptions concerning black Americans are not evident. That is, are there statements that, when considered together, cause one to draw an inference concerning Moore's attitudes toward blacks? In the following excerpt, suggestive elements have been italicized.

The political enfranchisement of four million Negroes . . . is the most startling fact about [Radical] Reconstruction. . . . There is nothing in the history of democracy comparable to it. To give the Negroes the ballot and office—ranging from constable to governor—and the right to sit in state legislatures and in Congress, while depriving their former masters of their political fights and the South of its trained leadership, is one of the most outstanding facts in the history of Reconstruction. . . . It was a stroke of fanatical vengeance and design. . . .

Race friction and prejudice were engendered by Reconstruction. . . . It caused greater discriminations against the Negroes in politics and education, and in other ways. The Negroes had been so pampered and led as to arouse false notions and hopes among them as to make them for many years lame factors in the rebuilding of the South. The Negro after Reconstruction, and in large degree because of it, continued and continues to be a source of division between the North and South. The North either could not or would not understand the necessity of race segregation, and the idea that the Negro must have a definite place in the scheme of life was obnoxious. Disfranchisement of the Negro, occasional race riots, and the sporadic mobbing of Negroes accused of heinous crimes gave rise to continued charges of "Southern outrages." Criticisms from the North, generally based upon a lack of understanding of the problem, seemed more a matter of censure than of true interest in the Negro (Moore 1972, pp. 500-503).

For another lesson, students might compare the arguments and evidence of a Dunning historian like Moore to a more contemporary historian such as Kenneth Stampp, John Hope Franklin, or Eric Foner. For example, in the passage above, what arguments does Moore provide to support his contention that Radical Reconstruction "engendered" race friction? Would Eric Foner, based on the excerpt below, agree with Moore on this point? Students should evaluate and compare the generalizations of Moore and Foner in terms of the quantity and quality of evidence used.

In some areas, violence against blacks reached staggering proportions in the immediate aftermath of the war. In Louisiana, reported a visitor from North Carolina in 1865, "they govern . . . by the pistol and the rifle." "I saw white men whipping colored men just the same as they did before the war," testified ex-slave Henry Adams, who claimed that "over two thousand colored people" were murdered in 1865 in the area around Shreveport, Louisiana. In Texas, where the army and Freedmen's Bureau proved entirely unable to establish order, blacks, according to a Bureau official, "are frequently beaten unmercifully, and shot down like wild beasts, without any provocation." Susan Merritt, a freedwoman from Rusk County, Texas, remembered seeing black bodies floating down the Sabine River, and said of local whites: "There sure are going to be lots of souls crying against them in Judgement." In some cases, whites wreaked horrible vengeance for offenses real or imagined. In 1866, after "some kind of dispute with some freedmen," a group near Pine Bluff, Arkansas, set fire to a black settlement and rounded up the inhabitants. A man who visited the scene the following morning found "a sight that apald me 24 Negro men women and children were hanging to trees all around the Cabbins." (Foner 1988, P. 119)

Foner and most contemporary historians reject the idea that Radical Reconstruction "engendered" race friction. There is ample evidence to suggest such friction existed long before the Radicals imposed Congressional Reconstruction. In fact, these historians argue that real concern for the plight of the freedmen during this period motivated a number of influential Radicals. The historiographical debate revolving around the Radicals' motives—as well as virtually any issue during the period—can provide many interesting classroom materials.

The exercises presented here have focused on only one aspect of Reconstruction—the question of Southern accommodation in the period between 1865 and 1867. Of course, brief excerpts from secondary sources do not do justice to the complete works from which they are taken, nor do they truly reflect the historical complexity of the period. A completely thorough study of Reconstruction, however, is beyond the scope of a high school survey. Rather, the objective here has been to suggest ways in which high school students might be introduced to elements of the historical process—elements to which they are rarely exposed.

Furthermore, it is important to note that the teacher need not spend hours in a university library researching materials that will provide the basis for these exercises. Paperback anthologies of both primary and secondary sources abound, and such anthologies should be a part of every history teacher's bookshelf. Many anthology editors offer excellent historiographical essays as introductions to their selections (as do Grob and Billias), and these essays provide background information for the teacher. One need only keep an eye open at used book sales to collect at a pittance a virtual library of such volumes. New anthologies are always available from publishers.

As noted earlier, anthologies of secondary sources provide historical interpretations that are especially useful. Teachers can dissect the evidence that the historians use in support of their generalizations, supply these pieces of evidence to the students, and allow the students to do some inductive reasoning of their own—as in the simple exercise derived from John A. Carpenter's essay. Longer excerpts can be presented for critical analysis, as in the Moore and Foner passages. If teachers have time, of course, they can plan more sophisticated exercises involving the study of actual historical monographs.

Reasons to Investigate Historiography

Knowledge of Reconstruction historiography, or the historiography of any period, provides the teacher with information—both primary and secondary—around which effective exercises in thinking historically can be created. Exercises in inductive reasoning and critical thinking not only allow the students to "do" history, they also make history more fun. Sampling the historiography of a period or issue can add many dimensions to the teaching of history.


Beyer, B. 1985. Critical thinking: What is it? Social Education 49(4):270-76.

Carpenter, J. A. 1966. Atrocities in the Reconstruction period. In The age of Civil War and Reconstruction, 1830-1900: A book of interpretive essays, edited by C. Crowe. Homewood, Ill.: Dorsey Press.

Davidson, J. 1994. After the fact: The art of historical detection. Presentation at the annual meeting, National Council for the Social Studies Rocky Mountain Region, Phoenix, Ariz.

Foner, E. 1988. Reconstruction: America's unfinished revolution, 1863-1877. New York: Harper and Row.

Franklin, J. H. 1961. Reconstruction after the Civil War. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Graebner, W., and L. Richards. 1982. The American record: Images of the nation's past, vol. 1. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Grob, G. N., and G. A. Billias. 1972. Interpretations of American history, vol. 1. New York: Free Press.

Litwack, L. F. 1979. Been in the storm so long. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Moore, A. B. 1972. One hundred years of Reconstruction of the South. In Interpretations of American history, vol. 1, edited by G. N. Grob and G. A. Billias. New York: Free Press.

Randall, J. G. 1952. Reconstruction debacle. In Reconstruction in the South, edited by E. C. Rozwenc. Boston: D. C. Heath.

Stampp, K. M. 1965. The era of Reconstruction: 1865-1877. New York: Vintage Books.

*Robert P. Green, Jr., teaches secondary social studies methods and supervises student teachers in the College of Education at Clemson University.

[Alaskool Home]